GAY BARS WERE USUALLY HIDDEN, unmarked enclaves for only those in the know. Marginalized, much like their clientele, they were frequently found in underdeveloped or industrial sections of a town or well off the beaten path in rural areas. Often veiled behind tinted glass, with narrow entrances to allow doorkeepers to screen patrons, the bars tended to hide the goings-on within from the general public—and the police—as a matter of survival.
During the 1950s and 1960s, police routinely raided venues and harassed patrons. Authorities could arrest gay men and lesbians for impersonating the opposite gender if caught wearing the “wrong” outfit; crossdressers or transgender individuals were especially persecuted. In the late 1960s, amid the burgeoning of the modern American gay and lesbian rights movement, bars started coming out of the dark, announcing themselves with neon signs. They often became community centers, providing a safe place for marginalized members of society to socialize, organize events, sponsor sports teams, and enjoy eating together.
Many of these bars are long gone, though there are a few surviving sites. Focusing on the physical facades gives one a sense of how these bars fit into San Francisco’s social and sometimes sexual scene. These images of urban establishments are reminiscent of Eugène Atget, the French flâneur and pioneer of documentary photography, who was determined to document the architecture and street scenes of Paris before their disappearance to modernization. After Atget’s death, Berenice Abbott championed his oeuvre and took his techniques to New York City.
Similarly, Henri Leleu recognized the importance of the ephemeral in these quotidian shots of a subset of San Francisco’s marginalized social scene. Leleu, a gay man, World War II veteran, photographer, and world traveler, was active in the city’s leather scene and the Tavern Guild, the first U.S. gay business association formed in response to rising tensions between the police and homosexuals. Leleu’s images traverse the many neighborhoods that featured gay watering holes: the Waterfront, the Tenderloin, South of Market (SOMA), North Beach, Downtown, Chinatown, Haight, Polk Street, and, of course, the now world-famous Castro district.
The history of San Francisco’s gay bars is rich and fascinating, as evidenced by this small sampling of its neon signs. This article is based on a presentation by Jim Van Buskirk and Al Barna, which was inspired by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) Historical Society’s online archives that offer digitized images by Henri Leleu (1907- 1996) at www.glbthistory.org/henri-leleu-bar-photographs.
Jim Van Buskirk is the co-author of Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area and co-editor of Love, Castro Street: Reflections of San Francisco. The founding program manager of the San Francisco Public Library’s James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center, he has served as an advisor and copresenter for Neon Speaks. Visit jimvanbuskirk.com.
Al Barna and Randall Ann Homan are a husband and- wife team who authored San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons, Neon Icons catalog, and Saving Neon: A Best Practices Guide. They are the co-founders, producers, and hosts of the annual International Neon Speaks Festival & Symposium. Through the fiscal sponsorship of the Tenderloin Museum, they formed the not-for-profit organization San Francisco Neon to advocate for preserving the artistic legacy of historic neon signs via talks, tours, events, sign design, consultations, and books. Visit sfneon.org.
There’s more! To read the rest of this article, members are invited to log in. Not a member? We invite you to join. This article originally appeared in the SCA Journal, Spring 2023, Vol. 41, No. 1. The SCA Journal is a semi-annual publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology.
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